Japan from the inside out

A millenium of elegant pursuits in Japan

Posted by ampontan on Friday, April 11, 2008

We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.
– Oscar Wilde

WE’VE ALL SEEN THE NEWSPAPER PHOTOGRAPHS of young Japanese girls in thrall to the fashion extremes of baroquely decorated fingernails, sun lamp skin tones, white eye shadow, and hair the color of beach sand.

But we all know that the modern newspaper is to information what McDonald’s is to nutritious food, and the priority content for the dailies is still that old stand-by, the man-bites-dog feature.

Though it’s the truth that those girls and their male counterparts do exist, it isn’t the whole truth and nothing but the truth. It’s just as true that there still exists here an active interest in an artistic milieu distinguished by a centuries-old sophisticated elegance. All you have to do to see it is point your camera in a different direction and look.

The following events held within the past 10 days are examples of what I mean.

Geisha Fashions

A historical fashion show was presented on the first of the month at Yoshino Park in Kagoshima City, featuring models dressed in the clothing of geisha from the Kanto and Kansai regions at the end of the Edo period (1603-1868). (Kagoshima is in the extreme southwest of the country, and not very close to either the Kanto [Tokyo] or the Kansai [Osaka] regions.)

Elegance in Kagoshima

An added treat was that the park’s cherries were nearing full bloom, so the visitors were able to combine the beauty of a hanami, or flower-viewing party, while drinking in the beauty of the outfits and the models.

The show consisted of two models exhibiting the Kanto outfits and two showing off the attire of their geisha sisterhood in the Kansai. Each was on view for 15 minutes apiece, giving the other three plenty of time to change clothes. (That’s essential with kimono.) Meanwhile, a local instructor in kimono dressing explained to the audience the characteristics of the two styles—including details down to the different methods for tying the obi, or belt—as well as the customs of the age.

Unlike contemporary fashion shows, the audience was allowed access to the models in costume after the show to take photos and to examine the patterns more closely. One woman in the audience, captivated by the experience, said that the kimono were even more gorgeous under the cherry blossoms. Now there’s the whole truth and nothing but the truth!

The Genji Show

The Tale of Genji (also on the right sidebar), commonly agreed to be the masterpiece of Japanese prose literature and the world’s first great novel, is now 1,000 years old. To commemorate its millennium, an event was held in Otsu, Shiga, where Murasaki Shikubu wrote the work at the Ishiyama Temple, which was established in 749. The opening ceremony was a fashion show at a hotel on the shore of Lake Biwa, featuring clothing worn by nobility during the Heian period (794-1185).

Elegance in Ozu

Afterwards, those in attendance were treated to a boat ride to the Ishiyama Temple—this is Japan, of course it still exists—to recreate a visit said to have been popular among the Heian nobles. That was followed by a colorful parade in front of the temple gate.

As part of the commemorative events a Genji Dream Gallery was set up on the temple grounds. On display were embroideries depicting famous scenes in the story and robots recreating the characters. This is Japan, of course there were robots!

Hanezu Dancing

Kyoto demonstrated yet again that it is still the capital of sophisticated elegance at the annual Hanezu Dance performed by 21 girls aged 10-12 at the Zuishin-in, a Buddhist temple in the city. Hanezu is said to be a word that describes the color of plum blossoms, which are the inspiration for the headgear the girls are wearing in the photo.

The dance is held to commemorate the early Heian waka poet Ono-no-Komachi, who seems to have been born up north in Akita (where a Shinkansen train and a variety of rice are named after her). She spent the last years of her life at the Kyoto temple, however, and is remembered for her erotic poetry.

Elegance in Kyoto

The dance itself, which the girls performed four times, recreates the event for which Komachi is still best known. The high-ranking courier Fukukusa no Shosho was madly in love with her, and Komachi promised that she would become his lover if he visited her every night for a hundred nights. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

The courier came callling faithfully every night, but failed to make the date once towards the end. Some versions of the story have him becoming ill on the 99th night. The desperate lover was overcome with despair and died. And when Komachi learned of his death, she was overcome with sadness.

As well she might be! Zama miro, as some Japanese could have said–it served her right for playing that age-old game and missing out on the chance to find out just how good a man can be!

But the Japanese don’t say that—it’s just my old Western philistinism reemerging from hibernation. Instead, they’ve kept the story (and her poetry) alive, again for more than a millennium. In fact, novelist and butch militarist Mishima Yukio was so taken by the tale he adapted for the modern stage an older Noh play about her, called Sotoba Komachi. (Here’s a review of his version and here’s a text of the original.) And grade school girls dance in honor to this erotic poet on the grounds of a Buddhist temple that was founded in the year 991 and still exists today.

Really, the Christians, Jews, and Muslims don’t know what they’re missing!

Waka Drinking Party

While the female waka poets played games of love, their male counterparts used to indulge in elegant pursuits of their own, one of which was called kyokusui no en (or sometimes gokusui no en).

Elegance in Kobe

This palace amusement originated in China long ago, and became popular in Japan during–you guessed it–the Heian period. Here’s what happens: the poets gather by the side of a brook that passes through a garden. A cup of sake is filled, placed on a platform designed to look like a waterfowl, and floated down the stream. The poet must dash off a poem on the spot, in brush and ink no less, and must drink the sake if he fails to come up with a poem by the time the tray bobs by.

In other words, this is the world’s most cultured drinking game. Fortunately, waka are only 31 syllables long, or else there would be a lot of drunken louts lying on the grass with very little poetry to show for their efforts. (Which is what happened to a lot of Western poets, come to think of it.)

A kyokusui no en was reinstituted in 2001 to celebrate the 1,800th anniversary of the founding of the Ikuta Shinto shrine in Kobe in the year 201—yes, it still exists—and this year’s version was held earlier this week. The party consisted of poets in period costumes and about 300 visitors. The poets included seven members of the prefecture’s waka club and Ido Toshizo, the governor of Hyogo, all of whom wrote waka on the theme of the family.

Hey, if grade school girls can dance in honor of an erotic poet at a Buddhist temple, then grown men can certainly write poetry and drink at a Shinto shrine if they want!

Four different events in four different cities in fewer than 10 days…looks like a pattern to me!

If your taste runs to those girls with the gloopy fashion and makeup (and let’s face it, they wouldn’t resort to camouflage if they were all that attractive to begin with), then all I can say is, bon appétit! They aren’t the only game in town.

A representative from the Japan Waka Club came to Kobe for the Kyokusui no En, and contributed the following poem before the sake cup floated by:


I might have the line breaks wrong on that. I pretty much stick to translating modern Japanese, not having much time to study the older forms of the language nor the talent for poetry. But it would be fun to see what someone else can come up with!

And don’t pass up the photos of the Ishiyama Temple!

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